Residents in a neighborhood just south of Walkerville say the county has turned a large triangular lot in their McGlone Heights neighborhood into a project replete with ugly tall grasses and weeds.
Dave Palmer, Butte-Silver Bow’s chief executive, hears their concerns and has plans to turn much of the “11th Street Triangle” into short, green grass and replace existing native grasses with shorter native plants and flowers. Someone, in an act of suspected vandalism, already removed some trees the county had planted by sawing them down.
But there’s a third side to the controversy over the county-owned lot at the intersections of 11th and Excelsior streets.
The Butte Natural Resource Damage Program spent $30,000 having native grasses and forbs planted in the space to stave off stormwater erosion and protect waterways, and it might ask for the money back if “beautification” efforts go too far.
“That really kind of goes against the tenets of restoration,” said Pat Cunneen, an environmental science specialist for the NRDP. “Our main goal is for it to be self-sustaining so it doesn’t require a lot of maintenance.”
Robert Pal, a Montana Tech professor who oversaw the project to plant native grasses, agreed. Some weeds have surfaced since work began in October 2015, he said, but they pop up most everywhere, and students have removed most of them.
“If we put in something green like a golf course, who is going to pay for it?” he asked. “Our perspective was to have a native little system that nobody needed to care for, and if there is something, we will take care of it. It is not supposed to be a green golf course.”
But neighbors say they were left out of the loop when plans for the area were drawn up and later executed. And up to now, they say, their complaints about the look of the area and weeds and grasses above their knees have been dismissed.
“We have been on this lot (issue) for three years, and we have had a lot of promises and no action,” Linda Raiha, who lives just above the lot on 11th Street, told commissioners at a recent meeting. “We were never asked for input. It was just put there.”
Commissioner Cindi Shaw, whose district includes the lot, and Commissioner Dan Callahan, who grew up in the neighborhood, say the neighbor’s concerns are legitimate.
“This is not a remediation site,” Shaw said. “This is McGlone Heights, which is an established neighborhood, and this is not what we thought we were going to get.”
ROOTS OF THE CONTROVERSY
Neighbors took their complaints to the council level in late June with a letter addressed to commissioners.
“We will continue to question what is being done as our properties are taken over by weeds and tall grasses to a degree we have never had,” the letter said. “Never was reclamation work mentioned to any of us.”
The letter was signed by Raiha, Mike Mazzolini, and Kathy Hayes, though at least a few others are upset, too.
Jon Sesso, who was still county planning director at the time, sent a memo to commissioners in response that included a timeline of events and actions on the triangle.
He said it started in 2014 when someone complained to the county about dirt, concrete, and construction debris from a nearby garage project being dumped on the vacant county lot. That prompted an inquiry from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Due to the lack of any vegetation at the property, coupled with inadequate curb and gutter improvements, stormwater run-on and run-off from the site was identified as a potential water quality problem, threatening the health of Silver Bow Creek,” Sesso wrote.
There was no evidence of contaminated soils, Sesso said, but EPA demanded the county mitigate stormwater issues.
Sesso said the garage contractor eventually removed waste from the site, and the county took steps to route stormwater to area inlets. Curbs and gutters were installed around the triangle, and new sidewalks were put in.
The county considered “vegetation enhancements” to curb erosion and worked with “several stakeholders to select plant species” that would provide cover, minimize long-term maintenance costs, and not block vision of drivers or views of neighbors, Sesso said in the memo.
A plan was submitted to the Butte Natural Resource Damage Restoration Council (BNRC) in March 2015, and the presentation was advertised in The Montana Standard, Butte Weekly, state and local websites, and through mailings, Sesso said.
Under the plan, which was combined with a tree-planting program, trees and shrubs would be put in the center, and perimeters were reserved for native grasses and wildflowers provided by the Montana Tech Native Plant Program.
The BNRC agreed to fully fund the project at $30,000, with $20,000 going for county efforts and $10,000 going to Montana Tech.
FROM PLAN TO ACTION TO REACTIONS
According to the written plan, there was nothing on the site but “undesirable weedy species” before the project began.
Pal said Tech students focused on the three corners and laid down seed mixtures and planted forbs starting in October 2015. The county seeded part of the lot with a Tech-produced mix the following spring that included “drought tolerant grasses and wildflowers,” Sesso said.
Pal said his students did more work that spring, too, and last May they pulled some “pennycress” weeds. The purpose was to have the area look good without constant maintenance, he said.
“We turned it into a restoration site. It was not a landscaping site,” he said.
Call it what you want, neighbors and Shaw say, it’s ugly and includes weeds and tall grasses that could have gone up in flames and spread to nearby houses in seconds this past summer.
On a recent day before autumn rains, they stood in the lot with grass up above their knees.
“It hasn’t been mowed, there is no water for it, and I’m getting weeds over in my yard (because of it),” said Hayes.
“They didn’t have a meeting before establishing this,” said resident Cathy James. “They didn’t get the input of the people.”
The complainants met with Palmer and other county officials recently and said he agreed with some of their concerns.
Palmer, in talking with The Montana Standard recently, noted reasons for the project but said changes were needed.
“I’m not a big fan of the native grasses in everything,” he said. “On a big, barren hillside, they have their place, but in a smaller triangle like that, I feel they should be better-looking.”
He said the center of the area would be mowed, which it has been, and more things would be done.
“There will be green grass for most of it, but since we used NRDP money, I would like a point by the bottom and a strip across the top for those native grasses, but without some of the more invasive lines like the sage and some of the others that grow too tall,” he said.
Those should be replaced with shorter, flowering types of plants, and the middle – where there are still some young trees – should be “manicured,” he said.
The plan was to get a sprinkling system installed yet this year, with other changes made next spring, he said.
Cunneen said mowing prevents the native plants from going to seed, cuts off a self-perpetuating cycle, and leaves the area open to invasive weeds.
None of the neighbors complained when the site was nothing but “waste,” and if beautification efforts go too far, the BNRC could ask for its money back, he said.
As it is, “I can tell you we are not investing another penny in that property,” he said, in part because the existing plants and grasses have met their objective of curbing erosion and runoff.
Funding for future projects with the county on the Butte Hill could be jeopardized, too, Cunneen said.
“Those plans are going to be highly scrutinized in the future,” he said.
The residents and Shaw aren’t abandoning their concerns either.
“They say this was never intended to be a beautification project,” Shaw said. “Considering that the site couldn’t be any uglier, I guess they succeeded on that front.”